Young county executive hits the ground running in Howard

March 14, 2007|By THOMAS F. SCHALLER

Howard County's Ken Ulman is a young man in a hurry.

Chatting over sandwiches at Serafino's restaurant last week in Ellicott City, the 32-year-old county executive brims with a plate full of ideas about how to manage one of the state's most dynamic counties.

Mr. Ulman practically interviews himself. A simple question about what's happening in Howard triggers a 20-minute disquisition during which Mr. Ulman covers everything from his plans for a "model public health" program to the two hybrid vehicles the county now owns. (Mr. Ulman drives one of them.)

It's easy to overlook Mr. Ulman and scoff at his county's "problems," because Howard is so often defined by superlatives. Per capita, Howard is the wealthiest county in Maryland, and it regularly ranks among the top five nationally. The share of residents with four-year and postgraduate degrees is also tops in the state and among the best in the country. Howard has a good public school system, and its libraries and park facilities have attracted national recognition. It's a nice place to live and raise a family.

Mr. Ulman isn't seeking sympathy, but he cautions that all is not sweetness and light in Howard. "People think we don't have any problems here, but that's not true," he says.

For starters, Howard is growing like a teenager. Among Maryland's large jurisdictions, its population grew the fastest during the 1990s - 32 percent - and has continued to outpace the state's growth rate this decade as it heads toward 300,000 residents.

As one of the state's smallest jurisdictions, Howard is getting crowded. What two generations ago was a sleepy, rural farming exurb in the center of the state has blossomed into a major bedroom community with nearly 1,000 residents per square mile.

All this growth is stretching thin the county's police force and other essential services. Managing sprawl while protecting sufficient green space is also a challenge. To that end, Mr. Ulman recently created a Commission on the Environment and Sustainability.

Nearly five of every eight residents work outside the county. Mr. Ulman's chief task is to keep residents happy enough with county services that they don't think about moving closer to where they work - places where housing prices and taxes may be lower.

Though its wealth and population growth would be enough to attract statewide office-seekers, Howard is further distinguished as the most competitive county in recent gubernatorial elections.

In 1994, Democrat Parris N. Glendening lost the county, but he won it four years later. In 2002, Republican Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. carried Howard, but four years later, Democrat Martin O'Malley flipped it back - by fewer than 1,000 votes. By contrast, all but two of Maryland's 23 other jurisdictions (Allegany County and Charles County excepted) went either Republican or Democratic all four times. As goes Howard, so goes the Old Line State.

A Democrat who served on the County Council before becoming county executive, Mr. Ulman does not complain too loudly. With a big tax base, good schools and relatively low crime rates - not to mention Democratic majorities on the council and the county's state legislative delegation - he knows his situation could be much worse.

His well-educated constituency pays close attention to its government, which keeps him on his toes. "I've been to public meetings and somebody will pull out a laptop and give a PowerPoint," says Mr. Ulman, shaking his head.

In his staffing choices, Mr. Ulman avoids hiring "yes people," says his communications director, Kevin Enright. Mr. Ulman persuaded Dr. Peter L. Beilenson, the former Baltimore health commissioner, to serve as county health officer.

"If you deliver high-quality services, people are willing to pay for it," says Mr. Ulman, who views his county's school system as a cost-saver because parents need not shop around for private alternatives and tutors. "The vast majority of the county budget goes to the public school system, and people expect to get their money's worth."

Had there not been several plot-twisting election contests in Maryland last year, Mr. Ulman's election might have been one of the big stories of 2006. Instead, his victory in this most pivotal of counties was mostly ignored.

The young county exec is unfazed. Besides, he's busy trying to stay one step ahead of a county in as much of a hurry as he is.

Thomas F. Schaller is an associate professor of political science at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and author of "Whistling Past Dixie." His e-mail is schaller67@hotmail.com. His column appears Wednesdays in The Sun.

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